It begins with walking. We walk back and forth between each others’ houses to share food or sledding invitations or canning efforts. We walk to the top of the hill to pick rocks in our fields. Living in a rural area, the only destinations within walking distance are our neighbors’.
Our neighbors, Sue and Neil, teach high school chemistry and physics. Their interests complement our medicine and ecology backgrounds so that we form a quartet of science lovers, energetically farming and raising kids alongside other jobs. As our kids discussed things the other day, I overheard their son, Thomas, tell Sam, “I’m not officially a guest. I’m your neighbor!” And that’s how we feel too.
A farm cannot exist in isolation from the people and landscape that surrounds it. Air and soil and water ignore boundaries of property ownership. Plants spread seed and grow across fences. Wildlife traverses. Kids toss baseballs and footballs and sticks for the dog. Our farm’s ecology—human and otherwise—seems most healthy when we commute and communicate across boundaries.
Walking the edges of our field—the five acres that lie between our house and their cow barn—Neil’s long strides measure a perimeter distance. Then he walks across to our door, sits with us at our little oak kitchen table, and we scheme over the constant peeping from the chick brooder.
Our neighbors raise beef on grass, and they’ll need more grass this summer for their growing herd. We, at this stage, raise grass, with no ruminants to graze it into meat. This situation is a match, we decide. All that’s missing is a fence to keep their cows in our pasture.
So we walk again, choosing a path for this fence. There is always walking, to place stakes and to stretch string and to measure, to talk with each other at each corner. Neil and his tall son, Andrew, dole out fence posts along the line. We are following relatively new boundaries, since our properties were once one larger farm, and our property has no fences. We are inventing the future.
We walk behind Eloise, which pulls a beast of a post-pounder, stopping to drive each post solidly in the ground. We are a slow procession, a parade with the music of the two engines and percussion so strong it vibrates your feet standing nearby. My dad drives the tractor; Neil’s dad lines up posts. Finding plumb takes a team, each eyeing the post from our own perspective and talking in sideways nods and hand signals to get it straight.
A few weeks later, with grass thickening the pasture, Neil and Andrew stretch the last piece of woven wire. Their hands are stiff and nicked from twisting wires. It’s demanding work—needing attentiveness and strength—to weave two separate pieces together into something stronger. It’s the right kind of work.